“It’s funny how listening to the piece over the week has changed my understanding of it,” said Lady, a most insightful and perceptive woman.
“First, I was just focused on the music—how beautiful it was. But now, and especially after hearing it with the text, I really get what Bach is doing. Consider the long, melancholy opening—perfect for an extended musing on poverty.”
“Well, there’s no instrument more melancholic than an oboe, and especially these baroque oboes, which are a little deeper in timbre. And notice the accompaniment in the strings—that de DEE dum. All meant to suggest sighs….”
“The thing is, all of the singers don’t get it, for most of the piece. They’re going on and on about how poor they are, how all the animals and the birds have their foods provided for them, but they no. And then the chorus breaks in with this absolutely heavenly music, all about how the Father will care for his child, and then they go right on. Bach doesn’t even given them a rest—it’s like the choir had never sung anything at all. You know, that’s poverty—being so focused on your misery that you can’t see anything else, especially the things that might enrich you. Have you ever been poor, Marc?”
I stop to think.
“It depends on what you mean,” I said. “I’ve never been hungry. But I remember a time when I only had twenty bucks or so in the bank, and no property or assets beyond some books, a couple of cellos, and the clothes I wore. I was working, but only making a couple hundred dollars a week—and that doesn’t go far in Puerto Rico. I’d wake up at night and wonder: what would happen if Raf found somebody else and we broke up? How would I survive? Would I have to go back to Wisconsin, my tail between my legs, and live with my parents? Go back to nursing, which at that point I hated, just to get by? It was scary, but then, what isn’t at two in the morning?”
“Doesn’t count,” said Lady. “If there’s a plan B—however bad it might be—then you’re not really poor. Poor is when your back is against the wall and there’s no real option and you’ve been kicked so long and so hard that you’ve stopped remembering a time when you weren’t getting kicked. Oh, and you’ve almost stopped feeling the blows, though you do, of course.”
“OK—so what about you?”
“I got closer,” she said. “In high school, it was a pretty bad time for my family. We had had ups and downs, and this was one of the downs. I remember having only 25 cents in my pocket, and wondering whether I was going to go home—‘cause my mother was having a lot of problems at the time, and it wasn’t always good, being there at home. Or maybe I’d go to my aunt, which would be OK, but what about my mother? So there wasn’t much stability, and definitely not much money.”
“Of course, I had dreams. I always knew there would be a Poet’s Passage, and I knew that we’d make it.”
“Then maybe I came closer than you, after all,” I said. “Because if there’s anything that depression is, it’s ‘poverty of spirit.’ And there were years there when I had given up hope. Hard to explain, because on the face of it, everything was OK. Even when I was at last making money, saving money, able to take real vacations—well, it doesn’t mean much if you’re having crying jags in the men’s room at work, and you can concentrate because the thought, ‘I want to die,’ keeps intruding itself in your head….”
“That’s poverty,” said Lady, who has managed to live just on the shoreline of wealth. So the money washes in, refreshing her, and then washes away, but that’s no problem because the sun is bracing and besides, the next wave will be along in a few seconds, so why worry? True, just at the moment she’s broke, but not really, since the cause of the break was a kitten who smelled a saint / sucker and followed her home, purring and wrapping itself around her legs. So now Lady has no money, but she does have a cat, though not really, since in fact she has two cats at home, both of which would eat the kitten as a snack before breakfast. Or maybe like a canapé with cocktails.
“The kitten’s name is Eugenia,” I tell Lady, as I hold the kitten and scratch its ears. “Look, I’ll show you….”
“Eugenia,” I whispered to the kitten. Her head jerked up.
“See?” I told Lady.
“No fair,” cried Lady, “you’ve got your thumb under Kitty-X’s head. No, it’s Kitty-X—that’s the name!”
Well, we’re not going to agree, so we go back to the Bach.
“As a cellist, I would kill to play that cello part,” I told Lady, in reference to the bass aria, Auf Gott steht meine zubersicht. All of the doubt has fallen away, and the bass is singing his praises to God, who has sent the check in the mail. “You know, only God could have trumped Bach for contrapuntal music….”
Right, I keep forgetting.
“It’s music in which each instrument—or group of instruments—is given a complete distinct, though very much related, line. I mean, the aria starts out with the violins presenting the theme, and the rest of the orchestra going plunk / plunk / plunk as an accompaniment. But then all of a sudden the celli are doing the theme, and the violins are going plunk / plunk /plunk. Then Bach starts ripping the heme apart, and then all of the voices are speaking, but instead of being at a maddening musical cocktail party, it all makes glorious sense. No one line dominates, and the sum is always bigger than the whole. And that’s why you can listen to this music forever. There’s always something new that you’ve never heard before, and then you’re smacking you forehead and wondering why you’d never happened on it….”
“There’s something so joyful about that aria, though maybe joyful isn’t the word.”
“It’s a quality only Bach has, I think,” I told her. “It’s a kind of jubilation based on very great faith and very great understanding. And it’s very difficult to name it. ‘Jubilation’ implies a sense of victory, but that would imply that something or someone has been defeated, and there’s no gloating. The same holds true for the word ‘exultation.’ There’s the sense that a long, confused struggle has finally been won, and joy and awe have prevailed, but with deep humility, and deeper understanding. Does that make any sense?”
“The word is rapturous, I think,” said Lady, “from the Latin raptus, whence the term for the birds of prey, the raptors. Because I can only think that Bach, in those moments has been seized by the Holy Spirit. I imagine him there in his church, struggling and toiling, the wheels and gears of his mind spinning until he reaches the pinnacle of distraction and abstraction, and then--so high has he reached--he stumbles and falls into the abyss. There he is falling, falling, and the the celestial eagle of the Holy Spirit swoops and seizes him. Whoosh! In a second he is soaring over the verdant, soft hills of Thuringia; he is seeing the world as only the angels can see it. For a brief moment, he occupies the moment we all aspire to: He soars between the world and the heavens, and can see both. But at last, he is returned, and finds himself again in his church. He rubs his eyes, and wonders: was it real? Had he been dreaming? And then, his eyes fall on the music, and he knows. It was real.”
Damn! Why, if I am writing this, does Lady get all the best lines?